GETTING INTO COLLEGE, STRUMMING HIS OWN TUNE
Attention, all helicopter parents and pressure-cooker children. I mean the ones who’ve been sucked into the vortex of college admissions anxiety. I mean the ones who fear that without paying thousands of dollars for tutors, consultants, test-prep classes and maybe a moonlighting graduate student to ghostwrite the essays, the future will surely be hopeless.
Let’s head out together to eastern Pennsylvania, to Central Bucks High School West, off the main drag in Doylestown. And while we make our visit, keep a particular phrase in mind. It will be our mantra. Repeat after me: Reality check.
Meet Kevin Robinson. He’s the senior with wispy blond hair and sunburned cheeks, in his international relations class, discussing the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war with a classmate wearing a Notorious B.I.G. T-shirt. There’s Kevin a couple of periods later, playing guitar with the school’s jazz ensemble, getting ready for a gig tonight in the cafeteria.
Notice how Kevin looks kind of relaxed, at peace with himself? That equanimity isn’t a case of senioritis. Back in April he got accepted to a very good college, George Washington University. And he did it — I kid you not — on his own merits through his own efforts.
Check this out. Other than some free test-prep classes the high school provided, Kevin didn’t do anything to game the system. He decided to live or die with who he was. Statistically speaking, that meant a 3.6 grade-point average, a class rank in the top 20 percent, a score of 1950 out of a possible 2400 on the SAT.
AND here’s the beauty part. He wrote his admissions essay about “Parliament Funkadelic,” comparing George Clinton to Shakespeare and “Atomic Dog” to a fugue. Not even his mother read the essay before he sent it in, though she is a pretty big P-Funk fan.
“I thought I had the tools and the knowledge,” Kevin said the other day, during his lunch period. “I felt it was unfair that other applicants had tutoring and things like that. But I never felt a personal enmity.
“In a way, I feel bad for those kids. Either they don’t feel they have the knowledge to get where they want, or their parents don’t. And the parents’ insecurities rub off on the kids.”
Speaking of parents, you should meet Kevin’s mother, Jenny Robinson. She works as a public information officer for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and between her income and child-support payments from Kevin’s father, her former husband, she brings home slightly more than $50,000 a year.
She’s not crying poor-mouth about it. She and Kevin share a town house, where he has a bedroom adorned with Jimi Hendrix posters. One year, when Ms. Robinson got an unexpectedly large tax refund, she took Kevin on vacation to Greece. When he turned 18 a few months ago, Ms. Robinson, her ex and her parents pooled their money to buy him a Gibson hollow body electric guitar, the same model played by Joe Pass.
Still, there’s no denying the reality of inequality, if you’re a middle-class mother watching people with a lot more money buy their children advantages.
“It frustrates me to know there isn’t a level playing field,” Ms. Robinson said as we talked in a coffee shop. “You have some kids with options and advantages that others don’t. And the colleges have no way of knowing. They think they’re comparing apples and apples when they’re not.”
As high school academics go, Central Bucks West rates as a fairly competitive, though fairly sane place. Ninety percent of graduates continue onto higher education. The 47 seniors in the top decile of the class of 2007 had grade-point averages of 3.95 or higher on a 4.0-point scale.
The principal, J. Kevin Munnelly, estimated that about 10 percent of students in the school received some kind of private help for college admissions. That’s not a large number compared with schools in Manhattan or Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, but a noticeable change from the zero percent when Mr. Munnelly first came to the Central Bucks school district 20 years ago.
Somehow, Kevin Robinson always went his own way. It was the same with music. He picked up guitar at 14, not because anyone told him to get some extracurricular activities on his résumé, but because it was summer and he was too young for most jobs and didn’t want to be bored. By last summer, he had gotten good enough to qualify for a weeklong course for classical guitarists at Mannes College the New School for Music in New York.
IN high school, Kevin took a fairly rigorous set of courses, including four advanced-placement sections, in his own idiosyncratic style. He talked his way into Physics I, even though he lacked the prerequisite class in pre-calculus. Then he got a C. He thinks back on the class as his favorite, because he learned so much. And, no, his mother didn’t call up the teacher to complain about the grade.
In fact, the physics teacher, Mark Campione, wrote a letter of recommendation for Kevin. “You don’t want to say, ‘Kevin got a low grade,’ ” he said, recalling the content of the letter. “But Kevin’s pursuit of true understanding wasn’t a case of going through the motions. Studying and repeating didn’t drive him. It was the intrinsic value of learning.”
Kevin chose to apply to Columbia, Delaware, Skidmore, Boston University and George Washington. B.U. and Delaware wait-listed him; Columbia and Skidmore turned him down. Perhaps somebody in admissions at George Washington liked “Atomic Dog?” Or maybe that person liked an 18-year-old who recognized that the point of being in high school is not to perfect yourself but to discover yourself, flaws included? (For reasons of students’ privacy, university officials won’t talk about Kevin’s admission, but they say he is part of the strongest academic class ever admitted.)
“The kind of college that wants Kevin to change himself into some model — what kind of college is that?” Ms. Robinson asked rhetorically. “Don’t they want someone who thinks for himself?”
Now, with graduation near, Kevin is thinking about a summer job. He’s been a supermarket cashier and a nursing home busboy in previous years. This time, he needs something in the afternoons and on weekends, because he was selected for an all-regional jazz band that rehearses most mornings. He’ll figure it out, in the same way he’s figured out a lot else.
“If you’re not dreadfully concerned with how you’re going to turn out,” he put it, “you’ll probably turn out fine.”
Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.